When obesity and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease collide. Physiological and clinical consequences

Ann Am Thorac Soc. 2014 May;11(4):635-44. doi: 10.1513/AnnalsATS.201312-438FR.


In many parts of the world, the prevalence of both chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and obesity is increasing at an alarming rate. Such patients tend to have greater respiratory symptoms, more severe restriction of daily activities, poorer health-related quality of life, and greater health care use than their nonobese counterparts. Physiologically, increasing weight gain is associated with lung volume reduction effects in both health and disease, and this should be considered when interpreting common pulmonary function tests where lung volume is the denominator, such as FEV1/FVC and the ratio of diffusing capacity of carbon monoxide to alveolar volume, or indeed when evaluating the physiological consequences of emphysema in obese individuals. Contrary to expectation, the presence of mild to moderate obesity in COPD appears to have little deleterious effect on respiratory mechanics and muscle function, exertional dyspnea, and peak symptom-limited oxygen uptake during cardiopulmonary exercise testing. Thus, in evaluating obese patients with COPD reporting activity restriction, additional nonpulmonary factors, such as increased metabolic loading, cardiocirculatory impairment, and musculoskeletal abnormalities, should be considered. Care should be taken to recognize the presence of obstructive sleep apnea in obese patients with COPD, as effective treatment of the former condition likely conveys an important survival advantage. Finally, morbid obesity in COPD presents significant challenges to effective management, given the combined effects of erosion of the ventilatory reserve and serious metabolic and cardiovascular comorbidities that collectively predispose to an increased risk of death from respiratory failure.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Exercise Tolerance / physiology
  • Forced Expiratory Volume
  • Humans
  • Lung / physiopathology*
  • Obesity / complications
  • Obesity / physiopathology*
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / complications
  • Pulmonary Disease, Chronic Obstructive / physiopathology*
  • Respiratory Function Tests
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Sleep Apnea, Obstructive / complications
  • Sleep Apnea, Obstructive / physiopathology